After 40-plus years, one question remains: Is Richard Thompson just too good?
Consider this: In 1999, Richard Thompson released Mock Tudor, which is one of his two or three best albums, if not just the best. That's 32 years into his recording career. Imagine if Paul McCartney had released Flaming Pie and it was as good as or better than Revolver. While we're at it, imagine that everything he'd released in the interim was nearly as good, too. That's the level of talent at work here.
Mock Tudor represented a back-to-basics approach following a series of records with more experimental production courtesy of Mitchell Froom. This method has continued since and has possibly reached its apotheosis with Dream Attic, an album of 13 new songs recorded live, in front of an audience. This is hardly Thompson's Time Fades Away, though, and but for the snatches of applause, it is largely indistinguishable from his recent, no-frills studio work. Well, perhaps not entirely; the spontaneity of live performance seems to have energized Thompson. On record, Thompson often restricts his incredible guitar playing to a tasteful accompanying role, but here, nearly every other song has at least one blazing solo. These solos -- each one a tour-de-force incorporating knotty Celtic scales, drones, and blazing single-note runs -- would reward thesis-level scrutiny, which we can't really provide here, so let's just say that more guitar is a good thing.
Thompson's sense of humor is on display on the opener, "The Money Shuffle". For someone with as dark lyrical preoccupations as Thompson (sample lyric, from the rollicking murder song "Sidney Wells": "They found her poor remains and summoned the bereft / And took her to the church to bury what was left"), who could have predicted that the album's opening line would be "I love kittens"? The song is a satirical swipe at Wall Street, but with an essential element of wit that elevates the song over the work of your average blustering, indignant rock star with a point to make.
From there, Thompson progresses through 12 more songs that could easily be someone else's greatest hits. Musically, little here should come as a huge surprise to anyone familiar with Thompson's music. The addition of a fiddle to the current band's lineup increases the music's already apparent connection with British traditional music, and a couple of the songs end with reeling, folk dance arrangements. Lyrically, much of the record concentrates on folk music's customary cast of ne'er-do-wells, roustabouts and murderers (sometimes updated, as in "The Money Shuffle", and all rendered with humor and a keen eye for detail), though songs like "Burning Man" and "Crimescene" adopt a more spectral, impressionistic style.
A handful of songs emerge as highlights, although as noted above, the average level of quality is embarrassingly high. "Crimescene" and "Stumble On" surely stand among Thompson's finest ballads, though in different ways. "Crimescene" is haunted and ominous, while "Stumble On" is simply gorgeous. "Demons in Her Dancing Shoes" is a propulsive character study set in swinging London, which incorporates some seemingly incongruous fiddle passages with style and aplomb.
Complaints? The character sketch "Here Comes Geordie" isn't quite as awesome as the other songs on the record. That's pretty much it. At 73 minutes, the album is kind of long, and perhaps could stand to lose one of its six-minute ballads, but they're all so damn good that we might as well keep them. Thompson has certainly earned the right to indulge himself. He made Shoot Out the Lights and Rumor and Sigh, so he can stretch out a little if he wants. It's a testament to Dream Attic's quality and Thompson's enduring ability that his latest can rub shoulders with such an auspicious back catalog.